One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau
From the height of German control of Europe in 1943 to the liberation of Dachau in 1945, Felix Sparks marched a long, treacherous road from the beaches of Sicily to the ruins of Munich while leading the 157th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion through tragedy and triumph en route to victory on the Western Front.
Like most Americans born in the years after the First World War, Sparks grew up as a child of the Depression once the Roaring 20s came to an abrupt halt and the copper mines of Miami, Arizona were left at a merciless standstill. In his youth, he hunted quail and rabbits to help feed his parents and four siblings and developed a passion for military history while reading about wars long past at the local library. Having been unsuccessful at finding work in the Corpus Christi shipyard after graduating from high school, he rode the rails west to San Francisco and enlisted in the Army after an encounter with a sidewalk recruiter. After two years with an artillery regiment in Pearl Harbor, Sparks was discharged and enrolled at the University of Arizona in 1938 where he worked his way through ROTC and the Citizens Military Training Program en route to commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was then recalled to active duty with the 157th Infantry Regiment in January 1941 and married his college sweetheart, Mary Blair, in June of the same year.
The 157th was one of three regiments that made up the 45th “Thunderbirds” Division, a part of the Oklahoma National Guard. Its men, including the newly promoted Captain Felix Sparks, would set sail from Virginia in the spring of 1943 en route to North Africa for amphibious warfare training prior to engaging the Axis Powers in the Mediterranean Theater.
Under the command of Lt. General George Patton, Sparks’ company would land on the southern shores of Sicily that July and fight northeast until reaching the outskirts of Messina, a resplendent city on the island’s northern coast that was founded by the Greeks in the 8th century B.C. After achieving victory, Sparks would be transferred to mainland Italy only to be wounded during a Luftwaffe bombardment but checked himself out of the hospital to return to his men.
Sparks’ company soon took part in Operation Shingle, the Allied amphibious invasion of Anzio in January 1944, as part of an attempt to outflank Rome, which lies 30 miles to the north. At a markedly desperate moment, cut off from help, Sparks was forced to call artillery down on his own position in order to keep the enemy at bay just long enough to give his surviving men a fighting chance to keep pushing onward. In his diary, Sparks would reflect that "It's not hard to get promoted in the infantry if you do your job and stay alive," followed by "The problem is staying alive."
Newly promoted Major Felix Sparks would then take command of a battalion as the 157th embarked northward from the French Riviera into the Vosges Mountains. It is there, in one of the book's most moving moments, that Sparks leaves the protection of his tank to sprint across open ground in order to pull wounded men to safety. In a rare humanizing moment, the SS's "Black Edelweiss" regiment would hold their fire as Sparks pulled three men to safety. Mr. Kershaw asserts that unlike the Imperial Japanese in the Pacific Theater, the Germans found no honor in killing a brave officer as he tried to save his dying soldiers. Sparks would eventually return to his post, saddened that he was unable to rescue more.
After a sobering experience in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, the 157th's final act would take place at Dachau, a concentration camp outside of Munich where malnutrition, overwork and disease continued to dispatch countless inmates alongside brutal demonstrations of violence by the guards. The scenes that greeted Sparks' regiment in April 1945 read as though they were from a surrealist horror story. In the aftermath of the discovery of a boxcar full of emaciated, twisted corpses, Lieutenant William Walsh led a group of men to line up SS guards along a wall and begin shooting. 17 were killed and more were wounded before a pistol-wielding Sparks put an end to it. Undeniably a war crime, the massacre could have ended his career. However, German surrender would come within the month and America had little, if any, interest in trying its heroes. The author ultimately gives Walsh the last word: "I don't think there was any SS guy that was shot or killed in the defense of Dachau who wondered why he was killed, or couldn't figure it out." By the end of the 157th’s bloody, 500 day arc across Europe, the 157th had lost 1,449 men.
Felix Sparks initially struggled after returning home but ultimately find solace in his family, soon to include two sons and a daughter, and his veteran friends. Upon resuming life as a civilian, he attended law school at the University of Colorado, established a practice in rural Delta, CO and later served as a State Supreme Court judge. Despite leaving active duty, he remained a reservist in the Colorado National Guard, retiring in 1979 as a Brigadier General after 11 years as its commandant. But Mr. Kershaw leaves no doubt that the central point of Felix Sparks' life was his journey to free the people he hardly knew existed prior to his arrival on the beaches of Sicily.
In most wartime biographies, men on the front lines are only able to witness their own unique, terrifying fragment of hell. Mr. Kershaw counters this by keeping the reader in touch with the grander scheme of things, giving the effect of an everyday American drifting through a somber, barbaric backdrop. Pearl Harbor, Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, the liberation of Rome and the German surrender to General Eisenhower are seamlessly woven into the Thunderbirds' journey and aptly remind the reader of the war's full breadth without distracting from Sparks' compelling personal tale.
"The Liberator" balances thrilling narrative with attention to detail and is reminiscent of classics of small-unit history like Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow. Americans speak easily of the "Greatest Generation," but it is individual stories like that of Felix Sparks which remind us of how hard-won that title was. From the bleak outlook of the Great Depression to the moral wasteland of Third Reich Germany, Mr. Kershaw's book attests to the hell that America's men in uniform waded through and the humanity they struggled to cling to through their journey.